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‘Surviving Hitler’ … And Never Forgetting New Play Recounts How One Man Survived the Holocaust

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Above image credit: A scene from "Surviving Hitler," now playing at the White Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park. (Courtesy | Ruth Baum Bigus)
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5 minute read

Jack Mandelbaum speaks with the cadence of a man who has thought deeply about each significant moment of his life.

He’s 95 years old, and has a deep well of memories to draw upon. Some of those made him the protagonist of a new play, “Surviving Hitler.”

“I’ll give you another story,” Mandelbaum said by phone from his home in Florida. “There are so many stories. I had to be clever to survive.” 

Holocaust survivor Jack Mandelbaum, co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education.
Holocaust survivor Jack Mandelbaum, co-founder of the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education. (Contributed)

To be sure, “Surviving Hitler” is a title that evokes the past. But the themes, like Mandelbaum’s often allegorical stories, remain relevant in our troubled present.

The play depicts Mandelbaum as boy and his resilient journey toward manhood during one humanity’s greatest acts of evil, the Holocaust. The title is from an award-winning book by an acclaimed local author. And now, it’s a play that saw its world premiere Saturday in Overland Park.

But in 2022, Mandelbaum’s story is taking on renewed and horrifying relevance. He sees it too.

Mandelbaum listens with a survivor’s ear to reports out of Ukraine and the unprovoked attacks on civilians by invading Russian forces.

“It definitely affects me when I see these things because I know what these things are,” he said. “I know the suffering. I know losing a child. Losing a wife or losing a husband. This is devastating. This is something that will be painful for years and years to come.”

On opening night, there was ample applause from a grateful and emotionally moved audience at The White Theatre on the campus that includes the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City.

An armful of flowers greeted Andrea Warren, who wrote the award-winning novel “Surviving Hitler: A Boy In The Nazi Death Camps,” and then crafted her prose into the play. 

Cupcakes were served after Sunday’s performance in honor of Mandelbaum’s birthday.

Mandelbaum was 12 years old when the Nazi’s invaded his native Poland, upending a peaceful and loving existence with his family on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Today, he’s among the dwindling number of people who lived through one of mankind’s most horrific evils.

His story, his existence in Nazi labor camps, has educated untold numbers through Warren’s 2001 book about his life, but the play is expected to reach new audiences. Warren, of Prairie Village, said she’s working with her agent to have it performed elsewhere.

“When people come out of the play, they want to talk,” Warren said.

“Talk backs,” questions and answers with her, the cast and director, are held after each performance.

Warren said the audience members note that anti-Semitism is on the rise. They are also concerned about the horrors of a new war, with death and destruction in Ukraine.

Even the space where the play is being performed through Thursday resonates with meaning.

It’s impossible to enter the White Theatre, Warren said, and be unaware that the parking lot outside is where, in 2014, an avowed white supremacist sought to kill Jewish people. He murdered two United Methodists and a later, at a nearby site, a Catholic.

Reat Griffin Underwood, 14, his grandfather William L. Corporon, M.D.,  69; and 53-year-old Teresa R. LaManno all died.

SevenDays® Make a Ripple, Change the World, an annual series of events to commemorate their lives, began with a kickoff breakfast on Wednesday. 

The Seven Days events are intended to guide people toward kindness, to seek out understanding so that hatred and stereotypes can’t find a foothold.

“I never learned to hate the Germans,” Mandelbaum said. “I haven’t practiced it, so I don’t know.”

He believes that hatred embitters the one holding the emotion.

“And I would say, if you hate somebody, then the Nazis accomplished what they wanted us to do,” he said.

The Seven Days events coincides with Mandelbaum’s legacy in other ways. Increasingly, the effort’s focus is on youth and education.

Nearly 30 years ago, Mandelbaum co-founded the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education with his good friend, the late Isak Federman. Federman was also a Holocaust survivor.

“I told Isak, ‘If we don’t do it, it will not get done,’ ” Mandelbaum said. 

An image of Jack Mandelbaum after World War II is shown on stage during "Surviving Hitler."
An image of Jack Mandelbaum after World War II is shown on stage during “Surviving Hitler.” (Courtesy | Ruth Baum Bigus)

The idea of the center came from the men’s recognition that too many people didn’t fully understand the Holocaust. That concern was piqued when Mandelbaum was living in the Waldo area.

“A very nice neighbor, one time he asked me, ‘What kind of sports did you play in the concentration camps?’ “ Mandelbaum said. “I answered the sport was the Nazi’s were trying to kill me and I was trying to stay alive.”

Shelly Cline, historian and director of education at the center, said that the play’s significance is that it describes the Holocaust beyond historical facts, instead showing the personal impacts, which are lifelong and unique to each survivor.

“There are three different versions of Jack in the play – as a little boy, as a teenager and the older Jack,” Cline said.

There are nearly 100 Holocaust survivors in the Kansas City area, she said.

But many wouldn’t self-identify as such. Rather, they are Russians who fled the Holocaust, going deeper into the former Soviet Union until finally being resettled in the U.S. Many arrived in the Kansas City area in waves of resettlement, in the 1970s and the 1990s.

Few lived in ghettos or concentration camps. But they did flee the Nazi’s and came from Nazi-occupied territories.

Cline said that images out of Ukraine, news of civilian deaths and the documentation of war crimes feels eerily similar to a historian. The main differences are that the new pictures are in color and are being instantly transmitted around the world.

“During the Holocaust, there were people just desperately trying to get the word out to let the world know what is happening,” Cline said. 

But this modern era shows that even when you have all of the facts, what is possible in terms of aid and stopping the crisis is still debated, she said.

That’s depicted in the play, when the Jewish characters speak out, noting that as they were targeted, “We thought our neighbors would rise up.”

The actors agreed that the phrase, “choose good” became a mantra as they rehearsed.

Mandelbaum endured, Warren said, largely due to his attitude and penchant for making friends, who helped him in the camps. 

“It was easier to survive if you had a friend,” he said. “We were looking out for each other.”

The play documents his bond with the late Murray (Moniek) Ciesla, who also survived the camps.

The two boys thought of their existence in the camps as a game that they needed to play skillfully.

“I didn’t take any chances that would kill me,” Mandelbum said. “I wish I was as clever as I was then.”

Mandelbaum also was determined not to take the tremendous abuse personally, instead thinking that the Nazi’s were playing their role too.

The loving embrace he felt as a child with his family, his strong sense of himself and his worth, also provided a reservoir of strength, Warren said. And he convinced himself that his family would be waiting for him at the end of the war.

That part did not come true.

Before the war, Mandelbaum had an extended family of about 80 people, including his parents, an older sister and a younger brother. After the Nazi’s were defeated, he had an aunt, an uncle and two distant cousins.

Mandelbaum’s capacity for forgiveness and his humanity is what resonates to those who know him well. 

“He was never just out for himself,” Warren said. “He was always that way, still is to this day. There’s just such a well of kindness in this man.”

More on Kansas City PBS

Mary Sanchez is senior reporter for Kansas City PBS.

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